All the president’s men: Tracing Trump’s policy shifts

All the president’s men: Tracing Trump’s policy shifts

U.S. President Donald Trump made a number of stunning foreign policy reversals last week regarding ties with Russia, China and NATO.

In less than a week, the Trump administration changed its course on Syria, adopting an interventionist stance favoring a regime change at the expense of confronting Russia, offered an olive branch to China in return for cooperation against North Korea and somehow, along the way, rediscovered the importance of NATO.

Last but not least, the U.S. military dropped America’s largest non-nuclear bomb on an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) target in Afghanistan.

To many, these mind-boggling and stark foreign policy U-turns signify the unpredictability of the current U.S. administration. While the concerns are very well-founded, the recent foreign policy shifts might also indicate that Trump is adjusting to his new post and has duly gained experience through a learning process.
Wasn’t it Trump who said, “Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated?” 

Yet it is also possible to interpret the recent policy shifts in light of intra-agency struggles and replacements within the administration.

Especially when a president like Trump has no prior political experience, the appointments to key posts in the administration offer hints about the foreign policy line and preferences. 

The first three months of the Trump administration have been rather stormy, with FBI investigations into Trump’s campaign ties with Russia on one hand and the forced resignation of National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn on the other.

Regarding the timeline of policy reversals, Flynn’s replacement by Army Gen. H.R. McMaster might have had an impact, resulting in the U.S. flexing its muscles on the international stage. 

In his first interview with Fox News this week, McMaster criticized Russia’s sponsorship of Bashar al-Assad’s “murderous regime” while leaving the door open for the Kremlin to choose between cooperation or conflict in building relations with the U.S. McMaster also defended the U.S. decision to send a carrier strike force to Korea as “prudent.”

It is no secret that Trump relies on an inner circle of advisers that includes close relatives and loyal campaign aides. 

Among the key figures reportedly driving the president’s agenda are his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. But according to Washington circles, the two are said to be competing for the president’s ear, and this competition is expected to end in favor of Kushner, with Bannon reportedly on his way out.

At this point, it is worth noting that it was McMaster who pushed for Bannon to be removed from the National Security Council’s Principals Committee last month. The incident also marked the waning of Bannon’s prestige and influence in the administration.

As such, it might be intra-agency struggles that are shaping U.S. foreign policy options.

In this context, Kushner’s increasing leverage in the Trump administration deserves particular attention, especially when his mentor is known to be Henry Kissinger, a proponent of Realpolitik who served as secretary of state and national security adviser under the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. 
His advice has been sought by many administrations up until today, and he is also known as the intellectual architect of Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s.

From a closer look, it is possible to trace similarities between the foreign policy reversals of the Trump administration and Kissinger’s policy recommendations.

For instance, Kissinger was critical of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy. According to Kissinger, Obama’s failure to act when the Syrian regime crossed its red lines not only damaged U.S. deterrence, but also caused a power vacuum that was filled by other actors in the region. Kissinger has also criticized Trump for calling NATO obsolete and for threatening American withdrawal from the U.S.-European alliance, which he sees as the central aspect of the global order. Needless to say, with his role as the architect of Nixon’s diplomatic opening to China, Kissinger has been in favor of avoiding confrontation and instead establishing cooperation on a win-win basis. 

When taken altogether, will these policy changes amount to a consistent strategy or a Trump doctrine? The jury’s still out. But so far, they indicate that whoever has the ear of Trump is opting for muscular diplomacy to revamp America’s power and leadership in the international arena.